How to motivate employees

How to boost motivation without financial incentive

A hallmark of a high-performing organization is one where good performance is rewarded and poor performance is swiftly dealt with. Trouble is, the definition of “rewarding performance” is changing. Traditionally, sustained good performance would lead to a promotion; another rung of the corporate ladder climbed. So ingrained is this performance-promotion link that some FTSE 100 companies have ritual ‘promotion days’, such as in the high-flying insurance company where everybody downs tools and shares a slice of cake with their newly-promoted colleagues.

But as organizations have become flatter, promotions have become fewer and farther between. Delayering and simplifying structures mean that, while once a junior employee would have 15-20 ‘rungs’ to climb, now there are only six or seven levels from bottom to top. Add in the fact that we’re living and working for longer – baby boomers are holding onto senior leadership positions, with Generation X sitting tight in middle-management – and junior employees are faced with the prospect of being ‘stuck’ at their current level for years to come. Is it any wonder that they often jump ship to seek opportunities elsewhere?

It’s often reported that Millennials have an average tenure of just two years; they try to job-hop their way ‘to the top’. No wonder that senior leaders are increasingly concerned about the strength of their internal leadership pipelines. One way to help Millennials stay put is to break the association between success and promotion. A vertical step up the career ladder is no longer the only way to progress. In fact, there is no such thing as a career ladder anymore – it’s more of a career lattice, and the key to employee engagement is finding a rewarding route through it.

In this new framework, a sideways step is an equally valid measure of progression as an upwards move. What matters is a sense of growth. There’s a reason that the final statement on the Gallup Q12 employee engagement measure is “in the last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow”. As long as people feel like they’re getting better at the things that matter; and can see the link between improving their performance now and getting what they want in the future, they’ll keep working hard. Research show that employees who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged at work.

Unlike their Yuppie forebears, Millennials are more interested in gathering experiences than possessions. This is handy in organizations where promotions and pay rises are scarce. Rather than motivating people with titles and status, smart leaders offer experiences which broaden employees’ horizons, deepen their skills and stop them feeling stuck. That could mean secondments in a new team, area of the business or office; different ways to balance home and work life; or even, in the most advanced cases, finding employees a sabbatical outside of the organization. There’s a lot to be said for the boomerang effect; having those honest conversations and maintaining strong bonds with alumni means they’re far more likely to come back at a later date – often more experienced, knowledgeable and networked, at your competitors’ expense.

Changing your perspective on progression also requires a shift in mindset. Time and time again research has shown that those with a ‘growth’ mindset – who believe that skills and characteristics are malleable – outperform those with a ‘fixed’ mindset, who believe capabilities to be predetermined and unchangeable. Managers and employees who believe in their own and others’ capacity to learn and improve will flourish in an environment where the potential for growth is all around. They are the ones who’ll find another reason for cake.